The Layering of Cultures and Pagan Ritual: Concerns and Considerations

I started my new Fall 2017 course at Cherry Hill Seminary, Understanding Ritual Experience, with little knowledge of anthropology nor any formal training / exploration in Pagan nor other belief systems use of rituals. While during the first F2F class (on the spot) when we were asked about how we understand the notion of ritual, I defined it then as “Repeated symbolic actions we imbue with meaning.” Pretty good I think, as I somehow missed the pre-reading that may have helped this be a bit more informed!

Since then, I have had the opportunity to think more about this, and find that I am approaching this courses more as an academic exercise than direct application of this work, most likely as I practice in a solitary manner and have little direct experience of ritual beyond the comforting straight-forward straight-jacket of approaches from my earlier life as a Catholic. Straight-forward in that everything was already written out and rehearsed while straight-jacket as being written and rehearsed meant that there were few (rather, none) opportunities to personalize it. In this way, I was expected to make meaning of it regardless of how right or wrong it felt for me. To this point, with all due respect, reading the words written a hundred or so years after the life and death of a Jewish fellow in the dessert is hardly something I find easy to relate to.

Of course, as a Druid, I embrace the spirit of nature and its spirit of place where I am, regardless if this were inhabited by Celts at one time or another.

I digress . . .

Since becoming a Pagan, I have become even more present to the idea of culture being more layered and nuanced than I initially thought. I see it as something we are born into, though even in that way it is highly layered and more chaotic than initially considered, and as such these layers (religion, approach to pop-culture, politics, health, race, belief systems, perspective on the poor, education, and the like) are further shaped by our own thoughts and feelings and experiences of them that I am having more of a difficulty even considering the notion of culture than I did when we entered the course. The UNESCO videos we have watched even in themselves appeared to make culture more singular than is realistic. For example, speaking of Mongolian Shamanism (UNESCO, 2010), we have the notion of shamanism as something centuries ago, how it started to be practiced after the fall of the Soviet Union, and how New Age practitioners may be using elements of it — the question of what aspect of the culture we are speaking about, all reduced to our own perspectives when we black box the term “culture,” which is far from having a simple or shared meaning.

I have a firm belief that (part of) the purpose of education is to invite us to be present to levels of discomfort, namely through realizing that the more we learn or know, the more questions we have and become aware of how much we do not know. That is thus far the effect of thus course, as now in our third week I am even more unable to define culture or shamanism, two of the themes we have been working through.

I think this is a good thing, and as an advocate of actor-network theory, I welcome when we try to open the black box, or stabilized notion of complex factors frozen into place or overly-simplified and left unquestioned of beliefs (Latour, 2005; Law, 2009; Sayes, 2014; Solmeyer & Constance, 2015), that we have come to or with which we engage with others about only to find that we are not clear on what we mean. This is truer of the notion of culture than I initially thought, as this far into the course I still do not have a working definition into what culture is (or is not), something I can say similarly of the notion of ritual.

I believe this is an intentional pedagogical mechanism, as a too-early defining of fundamental terms may close off discussion rather than stoke it. How more engaging can we talk about culture and ritual in ways that will fit into our numerous frames of Paganism than by having terms that somehow are layered enough with complexity that they cannot be readily defined and frozen?

So, where does this leave me? For now, I am more convinced than ever that people often use terms in ways that unite or divide without being explicit in how they are using them. For my case, I am experiencing this in the notion of ritual and culture, two terms that are frequently used though not as often defined or at least clarified. In this way, I am really looking forward to see how the professor helps us to move through this messiness, something that while it would be nice to clarify first, likely has a more powerful effect when done later.

By the way, I do plan to add a few blogging posts about this experience, in the hope that somebody (anybody!) may find my own meaning-making while along my path useful (even for what to avoid!!).

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. New York: Oxford University Press.

Law, J. (2009). Actor network theory and material semiotics. The New Blackwell Companion to Social Theory, 3, 141–158.

Sayes, E. (2014). Actor–Network Theory and methodology: Just what does it mean to say that nonhumans have agency? Social Studies of Science, 44(1), 134–149. doi:10.1177/0306312713511867

Solmeyer, A. R., & Constance, N. (2015). Unpacking the “Black Box” of Social Programs and Policies: Introduction. American Journal of Evaluation, 36(4), 470–474.

UNESCO. (2010). Mongolian shamanism. Retrieved from

This posting is part of my ongoing, shared journaling related to the Understanding Ritual Experience course I am taking during the Fall of 2017 at Cherry Hill Seminary.

You are welcome to join me on this journey!